The 5 Holy Grail Products That Revolutionized My Skincare Routine

And they’re all available in any drugstore!

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Girls feet in bathtub

Recently I’ve started doing an amazing thing. I’ve been going out without foundation. Not just in a “I’m not wearing any makeup” sort of way, but when I’m even trying to look nice. Even when I’m wearing lipstick!

Though I’m solidly into my twenties now, I’ve continued to have the skin of a teenager – until now. These five products have helped me both clear my skin and maintain it. I’m so excited I’ve been preaching the gospel of skincare to anyone who will listen!

First, I want to add a disclaimer: if you have moderate to severe acne, I recommend scheduling an actual dermatology appointment. Not only are there acne treatments not available over the counter, but a dermatologist can give you an individualized skincare plan based on your individual skin as well as the type and location of your acne. This article does not contain actual medical advice and is just my personal experience with these products, so a dermatologist is your best bet if you are looking for some professional guidance.

HOWEVER, if you have mild acne you feel comfortable treating with drugstore products, this is the list for you!

Related reading: Preventing Acne in College: A CF Survival Guide

For daily use: the routine itself.

Be careful because this knowledge may be TOO powerful. You are being entrusted with the secret of beautiful skin.

The biggest change for me is that all of these treatments are applied all over the face – not just a spot treatment. That’s part of what helps it prevent future acne as well.

Whenever you shower: Wash face with acne wash (salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide containing)

1. Biore (salicylic acid) Charcoal Acne Clearing Cleanser, 2. PanOxyl (benzoyl peroxide) Acne Foaming Wash

We’ve already talked about our love for charcoal products, but take it a step further with a salicylic acid charcoal wash by Bioré. Salicylic acid products help exfoliate the top layer of skin and unclog pores without drying you out too much. It generally works best for closed comedones or pigment marks from somewhat healed pimples.

On the other hand, benzoyl peroxide products are a better product for inflammatory (red and painful) acne. Be careful with these products because they do have a greater tendency to dry out the skin!

I personally use this benzoyl peroxide cleanser on my face, neck, shoulders, and chest because these are the areas I have the most problems with. Apply wherever you think you need it!

Morning: Moisturizer + Sunscreen mix

Three lotions - one moisturizer, one sunscreen, one combined

1. Cerave AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion, 2. Neutrogena SheerZinc Sunscreen, 3. Formula 10.0.6 Seriously Shine Free Moisturizer

Ok, so technically a sunscreen and moisturizer mix is not as effective as separate moisturizer and sunscreen. However, for me personally, I’m too irresponsible to remember multiple steps and using a mixed product is the only way I can manage to put on sunscreen in the morning.

I use Cerave AM as a moisturizer/primer for my makeup, but the brand doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you use something noncomedogenic so you don’t break yourself out!

If you’re more responsible, you can try a sunscreen (hopefully with SPF 50!) and a separate moisturizer.

Topical retinoid applied thinly all over the face (only at night!)

Differin Retinoid gel

You might recognize the word “retinoid” from commercials for older women’s serums and lotions – retinoids are also used for wrinkle prevention and treatment. Or, you may recognize the word “isotretinoin” – the generic name for Accutane, the big bad brother retinoid (prescription only).

As you could probably guess, retinoids have been used to treat acne for a while. However, Differin (generic name adapalene) gel is the first over-the-counter retinoid approved to treat acne (it was only approved in 2016!) so you can finally use a retinoid acne treatment without needing a prescription.

Retinoids are great because they work on acne (and wrinkles), but also on post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH). PIH are the dark purple/dark marks that are left over after a pimple has disappeared. So not only do retinoids help prevent these marks by preventing new acne, they are also the best answer for erasing these marks

Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so you’re definitely going to want to apply this at night. Apply a couple pea-sized drops and smooth it in to your whole face before going to sleep every night. Retinoids are also exfoliative, so if your skin is feeling too attacked, you might try switching to every other day instead of daily.

Cerave in the tub (morning or night!)

Cerave Moisturizing Cream

This product is one of the most highly touted moisturizers on the internet – and rightly so! I put this on every night after the retinoid. It feels pretty heavy duty when you put it on, but after a few minutes it feels light enough to wear under makeup if you want to apply it in the morning!

I switch between wearing this two times a day or using the mixed moisturizer/sunscreen in the morning instead. I especially love using it at night because I feel like I’m almost conditioning my skin overnight.

When you need a quick fix: Queen Helen Mint Julep Masque

Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque

Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque

This product is technically my fifth on my holy-grail list. A cult favorite, it has over 1,000 reviews on Amazon with an average score of 4.4/5. Simply squeeze the clay mask onto your fingers then smooth it onto your face and leave it until it dries. When you scrub it off with a washcloth, your skin will look visibly clearer!

I recommend this product to use once a week or so, whenever you need a pick-me-up. If I’m feeling grumpy or out of sorts, I can use this to take 20 minutes and reset my day.

I’ve tried to research how this product works and I’m pretty sure I’ve narrowed the answer down to either the sulfur in the ingredient list or magic itself.


To find a routine that will really work for you, you may need to experiment. But here’s the way I personally schedule my skincare:


  • Rinse my face with water/use a gentle cleanser of my choice (I switch off here, depending on how I feel – I picked up a bunch of free samples recently, so I’ve been trying a bunch)
  • Moisturizer for the morning – Either Cerave in the tub, a moisturizer/sunscreen mix, or *THIS* matte lotion plus regular sunscreen if I want to go out with having to worry about my face being shiny from the moisturizer.


  • Shower and use a salicylic acid face wash
  • Dry off and use the Differin gel all over my face, using about 4 pea sized amounts in total.
  • Once that has dried, using Cerave in the tub as moisturizer over at least my face, neck, and chest, but also any dry areas I choose.

Whenever I feel like it: Mint Julep Masque

Does this mean that this is the only timing that will work? Or are these the only products? Absolutely not. I personally change up my routine depending on when I shower or what products I have around. If you have more inflammatory acne, I would substitute benzoyl peroxide face washes rather than salicylic acid.

The products listed above have worked really well for me, but you’ll have to experiment a little to find what you like the best.

Other suggestions:

For sensitive/allergy-prone skin: Vanicream

Vanicream Trial Kit

I don’t have any topical allergies so I’ve never used this brand, however, Vanicream is supposed to be very good for those who need hypoallergenic products. They produce a variety of products, from sunscreen to moisturizers, soaps, and deodorants. Anyone who has sensitive skin and has tested this line, please let me know what you thought!

(Technically a hair product but): Dandruff shampoo

1. Nizoral ketoconazole shampoo, 2. Neutrogena T/Gel tar shampoo

In the winter, dandruff is super common and nothing to be ashamed of. And if Head and Shoulders just isn’t cutting it for you? There are a couple more products in stores that are even more effective, and you may not realize they’re even there!

The Head and Shoulders line has the active ingredient pyrithione zinc. This works great for some people. However, it’s not the only choice, and Head and Shoulders is not the only dandruff shampoo (as much as their advertising tries to make it appear that way). Tar shampoo and ketaconazole shampoo are both more expensive than Head and Shoulders, but are generally considered more effective. If Head and Shoulders isn’t cutting it for you, you might want to try one of these!

You should be able to see results in 1-2 washes with these, so you won’t find yourself investing in bottle after bottle for no reason.

Your thoughts?

For more acne-fighting product recommendations, see our guide to The Best Ordinary Products for Acne That Are Honestly Magic.

What products have changed your life? Have you ever tried any of these? Would you want to?

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